With 10 interceptions, Asante Samuel believes he has proven his worth, and he wants to be rewarded for all his hard work
FOXBOROUGH -- Tattoos are permanent. If you choose to have a message drilled onto your arm with a needle, then you must really mean what you say.
Check out Asante Samuel's tattoo: Get Paid.
He finished the regular season tied with Denver All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey for the league lead in interceptions with 10, establishing him as the cornerstone of a secondary that gave up just 10 touchdown passes this season, which was not only the best in the NFL, but also a franchise record.
Samuel's contract is up, and so is his dander. He sees where his negotiations with the Patriots are headed, and he says he's deeply disappointed in the tenor of the discussions. He is well aware of the recent decisions of the Patriots to allow David Givens, Willie McGinest, Adam Vinatieri, and Deion Branch (via trade) to walk rather than pay their asking price.
"We've talked to them about a new contract," Samuel said. "What they offered isn't even worth discussing.
"It's disappointing. You want to believe they know what you've done. So you hope for the best, but you end up feeling underappreciated. You feel disrespected, especially how they come at you with so much negative stuff. They show you such a low regard.
"I took it personally, at first. You'd think I would have been around this team long enough to realize it's all about business. So I'm putting it out of my mind.
"If you get emotional, you are going to lose focus and that will show up on the field. I'm not going to make that mistake."
He will arrive at Gillette Stadium today for the game against the New York Jets knowing it could be his last in a Patriots uniform.
Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Benny Sapp, Samuel's childhood friend who lobbied vociferously for him to make the Pro Bowl, says the uncertain future has gnawed at Samuel.
"They're messing with him a little bit up there," Sapp said. "I keep telling him all the work will pay off -- maybe in New England, maybe somewhere else.
"It would be a shame if he has to leave. Asante has fallen in love with the place. I know he'd rather stay, but he also knows it's business. They make that pretty clear up there. They just don't pay their players like other teams.
"My question is, why wouldn't you pay a guy who has been consistent every year? This is his fourth season and he keeps getting better and better.
"I don't know what's going on with the Patriots, but let me tell you this: Forget all that talk about the 'system.' The system doesn't make the player; the player makes the system. That's not why he's picked off all those balls."
It should not stun you to learn the Patriots do not comment on contract negotiations, particularly as they prepare to make another Super Bowl run. They will worry about Samuel's future later.
But New England's resolute cornerback learned long ago to take his future into his own hands.
"So slow you couldn't possibly imagine," he confirmed. "I mean, it was embarrassing."
Once, during his sophomore season in high school, Samuel and Sapp were horsing around before practice and got clocked in the 40-yard dash.
Asante ran a 5.4. And that was his best time.
"You can't believe how much we teased him," Sapp said.
Back then, Samuel used to be a quarterback. His high school team, Boyd Anderson in Lauderdale Lake, Fla., lined up a cadre of receivers and let it fly.
"He used to sprint out of the pocket, try to be Donovan McNabb," recalled his cousin, Emory Jones. "He got run down all the time."
At the end of Samuel's junior season, a new coach, Perry Egelsky, came to town. He watched spring drills, then announced he was switching to a Wing T formation and converting the quarterback to defensive back.
"The whole city was mad," Samuel said. "They wanted to get rid of him before he coached a game."
"I took a huge amount of heat," confirmed Egelsky. "Asante was the unhappiest of them all."
Samuel and his top receiver, Todd Devoe (who later played for the Broncos), began talking to other area high schools about transferring as a package deal. Officials from their archrival, Dillard, said they'd be happy to take them.
Egelsky knew his players were thinking of defecting, but there was a reason he wanted Samuel to switch. Close to 100 college scouts came to watch their spring game, and while some asked about Devoe and Sapp, none mentioned Samuel.
"I'd say, 'Hey, how about my quarterback?' " Egelsky said. "They'd say, 'Too small, too slow. Do you think he could play defensive back?' "
The coach hauled his angry young player into his office. He told him the truth: His dream of playing college football was dead unless he came over to the other side of the ball and provided some defensive film for the scouts.
Samuel grudgingly did just that, but not before he threw a few more touchdown passes for Boyd Anderson, and not before he demonstrated he was not nearly as plodding as everyone thought.
"He spent a lot of our time together saying, 'I'll show you,' " Egelsky said.
You see, Asante Samuel used to be stubborn.
"The one thing about Asante is, if you tell him he can't do something, he'll prove that he can," Egelsky said.
When his high school teammates learned Samuel was switching to the defensive side of the ball, he endured a flurry of wisecracks. How was he going to stop a receiver? He couldn't even beat out the linemen in a race.
Samuel was not amused. Maybe he didn't have exceptional speed, but he was still a top athlete. Had they forgotten that when they were kids, no one wanted to play on Asante's baseball team because he threw the ball too hard?
The summer between his junior and senior season in high school, he began working with an Eastbay parachute, a mechanism designed to improve foot speed. The chute clipped onto his waist and made it feel as if he were dragging a 280-pound lineman as he sprinted. It was grueling, tedious training, but by the end of his senior year, Samuel had whittled that 5.4 time to 4.85.
It didn't hurt that he grew 2 inches, or that, for the first time in his life, he embarked on a weight-training program designed by his coach.
"He resisted, but he did it," Egelsky said. "In the end, he always did it."
"Once Asante made up his mind he wasn't a quarterback anymore, he was hell-bent on proving he could be a DB," Sapp said. "It was like, 'If I don't do this right, I'm going to die trying.' That's Asante. It usually turns out for the best."
In his senior season, Samuel picked off four passes and led the city in pass breakups. He also handled kicking and punting chores for Boyd Anderson. During the second game of the season against Ely, in a fourth-and-long situation, Samuel took it upon himself to call a fake punt and attempted to sprint for the first down.
He didn't get there.
"What he almost got was a seat on the bench," Egelsky said. "And, after that, a talk about who was boss on this team."
The coach and the player clashed throughout the year. Egelsky administered tough love to a kid he knew was gifted but stubborn. He understood Samuel's background; a boy raised by his mother in an area rife with drugs and guns. He watched Samuel interact with the seedier set and admired how he was able to walk away at the right times. While some of his friends grew flush with cash dealing drugs on the corner, Samuel turned his attention to making sure his escape -- a college scholarship -- was not compromised.
"Sure, it was tempting," Samuel said. "You see your buddies with all these nice things and you say, 'I'd like some of that stuff.' It's all around you. You've got to be strong to avoid it."
You've got to be determined enough to believe you have a future in football.
Samuel was preparing for his final high school game when Egelsky approached him 10 minutes before kickoff. The starting quarterback was hurt and couldn't go. Asante would have to play both ways.
He threw two touchdown passes, intercepted two more, and rushed for 80 yards. He also returned punts and kickoffs.
"It was one of the greatest performances in a single game I've ever seen," Egelsky said.
"Just showing the coach I could play a little quarterback," Samuel said.
"I needed a highlight," he said.
It came against Dillard, the team he almost played for. Dillard receiver Joe Watkins was running a slant route and Sapp slipped in pursuit. Watkins caught the ball, took two steps, then was drilled by Samuel, helmet to helmet.
Watkins dropped to the field and didn't move again for several minutes.
"He hit him so hard I thought he killed him," Egelsky said. "The kid's eyes were rolling back in his head. People all over the county still talk about that hit, and it was seven years ago."
"To this day, it's one of the top five hits I've ever seen -- at any level," Sapp said.
The hit earned Samuel a new moniker -- Asante the Assassin. It became the featured part of his recruiting portfolio.
"It was kind of scary," he said. "Joe was my friend. I stood there wondering if he was paralyzed or dead or what. I was really glad when he got up."
The University of Georgia loved the hit and invited him to visit. Georgia was impressed with his toughness, but (like many others) still wasn't sure about his speed or size. The Bulldogs were willing to red-shirt him, but Samuel refused to discuss it.
He ended up at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, 174 miles from his home, determined to carve a path that would lead directly to the NFL.
"I had gotten a little stronger, a little smarter," he explained. "I knew where I was going."
It was fine with him that everyone else doubted whether he would get there.
He continued his agility and speed training and became a regular in the weight room. His time in the 40 dropped to 4.6.
"It used to be I could give him a 10-yard headstart and still blow past him," Jones said. "Not anymore. My cuz was smoking me."
The coaches were impressed with his technique and his timing. During Samuel's junior year, he and senior Travis Fisher, who went on to play defensive back for the St. Louis Rams, became the team's shutdown corners. Fisher wasn't invited to any all-star games, but the pros loved his speed (a 4.3 in the 40), so he was taken in the second round of the 2002 draft.
"That's when it clicked," Samuel said. "I said to myself, 'I'm better than him. If he can make it, I can make it.' "
He would have to wait to prove it. In Samuel's senior year, Atlanta, Cincinnati, and New England expressed interest, but he wasn't expected to go in the first two rounds. Samuel held out hope that maybe -- just maybe -- someone would grab him anyway.
The first two rounds came and went. His cousin, his girlfriend, his mother, and some close family friends sat and fretted with him. There was a nice spread for the guests, but Samuel didn't touch any of it.
The phone rang at the tail end of the second round, and the Bengals told him they were pondering using their first pick of the third round to select him. Samuel perked up and waited to hear them call his name on television.
Instead, Cincinnati chose receiver Kelley Washington.
The guests shifted nervously on the couch as the third round came to a close. Samuel would have to wait another day. The guest of honor walked outside the house, completely shattered.
"It was terrible," Samuel said. "Nobody took me."
"I couldn't stand watching him," Jones said. "His spirits were so high, but the disappointments kept on coming. I told him, 'It doesn't matter which team picks you. You'll show 'em. I know you will.' "
When the fourth round began the next day, the Bengals called again. They were looking at Samuel with the first pick of the fourth round. Cincinnati took a cornerback with its selection, but it was Dennis Weathersby of Oregon State.
"So now I'm stressed really bad," Samuel said. "I'm starting to lose it. I'm not eating or nothing. Someone said, 'Maybe the Patriots will take you.' Before the draft, Romeo [Crennel] told me they loved how I hit. But I hadn't heard from them."
In the fourth round of the 2003 draft, with the 120th overall pick, the New England Patriots fulfilled Samuel's dream. He became part of a blue-chip class that included Ty Warren, Eugene Wilson, and Dan Koppen.
The first thing Samuel did was field a congratulatory call from the Patriots. The second was to check to see when (or if) New England played Cincinnati.
"It's just as tough as you think it is," Samuel said. "You better be strong-minded or you won't make it. You can't argue with them, or you won't make it.
"I put up with a lot. But I was a fourth-round pick, so I had to. Bill [Belichick], Romeo, the veterans, they never let up."
Football was a job now. There were film sessions, conditioning sessions, practice sessions, playbook sessions. Samuel tried to keep up. He put in his time in the weight room, but when he thought he was done, veteran Willie McGinest told him he wasn't. He'd study film, and think he had it down, before Mike Vrabel would suggest he review it again.
One afternoon, after completing all his duties, Samuel was playing dominoes in the locker room. Belichick walked up to him, leaned into his face, and barked, "What is Derrick Mason going to do on third down?"
"I was like, 'Why ask me? This is break time,' " Samuel said. "I never said anything, but why was he always on my case? I did everything he asked."
The veterans offered no consolation. That is how it is done here. The only one who didn't ride him was Ty Law, the All-Pro cornerback.
"He was who I was playing dominoes with," Samuel said. "I always wondered why Bill never said anything to him."
By Samuel's third season, Law was gone to the Jets, unable to come to terms with the Patriots. Samuel found himself gravitating toward McGinest, who demonstrated the kind of commitment it took to become an elite player.
"He made me a better man and a better person," Samuel said. "I miss him. I understand now."
He's not sure when his skills all came together. They say your fourth year in the league is when the game starts to slow down and you see things more clearly. Belichick points to Samuel's preparation as the reason he's excelled.
"The fundamentals and techniques in the secondary are important," Belichick said. "They start in the offseason and they extend to training camp, and that's what has to carry the players at that position a long way. I think Asante has done a good job of that.
"He works well with his safeties, when they have combination coverages, knowing where your help is, that type of thing. He's a smart player. He's instinctive. He has good ball skills."
Samuel's high school coach marvels at his guile, a component Egelsky says has been a constant.
"He won't give up on a play," Egelsky said. "Even now, he looks like he's getting beat. You're sure the receiver is open, but as soon as the ball comes, Asante jumps in front of it."
Safety Artrell Hawkins points to Samuel's timing and speed as his most impressive attributes. Told that Samuel used to be slow, Hawkins cracked, "He might have meant mentally."
They both know better, of course. Samuel's mental resolve is what continues to drive him.
"I'm a strong-willed person," he said. "I know I have become a great player. You can't say one person or some system made me that way.
"I'm not worried about my future. The sky is the limit for me. Everybody wants a big payday -- after they've won their Super Bowl. I'd be lying if I told you I'm not excited about what's coming up. I've had a Pro Bowl year."
He knows the Patriots will say he was not chosen as a Pro Bowl player and therefore should not be compensated as one. He's aware that his team is as stubborn as he is about drawing a line in the sand.
Samuel is fine with people thinking he's not up to speed with the game's best corners.
"Get Paid"? He's certain he will.
Asante Samuel is prepared to prove that to everyone -- including, if necessary, the New England Patriots.